Calphalon’s Moroccan Inspired Slow Roasted Chicken.
Winterlicious—it is back. New this year, in addition to the special menu fare, are several new culinary events meant to give us the chance to get more creative with our dining.
And so, of course, we had to check some of them out.
Greeted by the warm staff, we were shown around the three-level building. The bright yet cozy modern set-up, located at King Street and Spadina Avenue, houses a cooking classroom, a retail centre, and a private dining room equipped with a set up worthy of an Iron Chef team.
The entrance to the Calphalon Culinary Centre.
We took our seats at candlelit tables, which lent a convivial atmosphere to the rows of tables and made us feel like we were anywhere but a classroom. Nevertheless, a class we were, and a diverse one at that: a group of girlfriends who became progressively louder and more enthusiastic as the night (and the wine) wore on, mother-and-daughter duos, couples both young and old, and colleagues from neighbouring offices enjoying the start of the weekend.
The menu, designed by executive chef Susie Reading, was inspired by warmer climates and included items such as Chana Masala soup and Moroccan Inspired Slow Roasted Chicken, as well as somewhat less appetizing fare (see: dessert poutine).
While we ate, Chef Susie and her team trained and entertained the crowd—who, it was clear, ranged from novice cooks to chefs in the making. Diners were encouraged to learn while they ate, and even the well-seasoned cooks in the crowd had a few “aha” moments, as Chef Susie taught us how to sharpen a knife properly (without losing any appendages), how to dice an onion evenly, and the basics of cooking in an organized fashion.
When we asked the two couples sitting behind us how they were enjoying themselves, they intimated that the food was not the best they’d ever had, but hesitated to be overly critical. Our opinion? If you’re expecting a five-star meal, this is not the place to go; there are other restaurants participating in Winterlicious that offer this kind of experience. The food was simple and decent, the recipes designed to be easily recreated at home. But most notably, what was lacking in culinary excellence was made up for in the fun of the overall dining experience.
On to our next adventure…
The Campbell House 1940s-inspired grilled cheese: Cheese Dreams with Bacon.
Dinner and a show. Sounds pretty basic, right? Until you find out the meal is being served in the basement of a nineteenth-century home, replete with open fireplace, original brick flooring, and enough dank chill to necessitate a roaring fire. And the show is performed in the upstairs ballroom of said nineteenth-century home, to an intimate crowd of forty, the action centred around an antique dining-room table.
We were swept up by the charm and whimsy of the Campbell House Museum. The Dining Room, this year’s Winterlicious event and a pre-cursor to the upcoming daily lunches to be held at the house, is a partnership between museum curator Liz Driver, executive chef Margaret MacKay, and David Vallee, proprietor of Hearth & Garden, a food and event concept at Campbell House.
Dining, complete with crackling fire.
As the guests wandered about the main floor waiting to be seated in what used to be the kitchen of the historic house, surrounded by antique pieces, plush, worn furniture, and candlelit walls,it wasn’t hard to imagine being a part of the original surroundings.
The menu—inspired by staples and favourites from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—included contemporary twists on such classics as BBQ beef shortribs, cream of tomato soup, meatloaf, and Nanaimo bars. The nostalgia was inescapable. While the food erred more on the side of home-made than gourmet, the flavours were traditional and simple. Would we go again? Well, no. But if you’re content to eat jacked-up grilled cheese and a well-made meatloaf, the value of dinner and a show is worth the cost, just once.
We and our now-stuffed co-diners—a mix of couples both young and old (but mostly the latter), mothers and daughters, and groups of girlfriends—were ushered from the basement kitchen to the second-floor ballroom-cum-dining room, where there were just enough chairs to accomodate us.
Enter the actors. They too took us back in time, with the Dora Award–winning The Dining Room. Performed by Down n’ Out Productions and directed by Jonathan Geenen, the play casts a close eye on the dining table as the centre of family life in a bygone era. While the dining experience set the stage for the evening, the play was funny, witty, surprising, with nary a dull moment: a high-note ending to a night of Winterlicious escapism.
Photos by Eugene Ace.